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Chest Pain

Chest pain can come in many forms: a sharp stab, a dull ache, crushing, or burning sensations. Sometimes you'll feel the pain travel up and down your neck, jaw, and arms. There are many different causes of chest pain. The most life-threatening involve the heart or lungs. If you feel chest pain, it's important to seek medical help.

What happens once you have chest pain?

Chest pain or discomfort related to a heart problem may include the following symptoms:

  • Cold sweats.

  • Shortness of breath.

  • Nausea or vomiting.

  • Dizziness or weakness.

  • Pressure, fullness, burning, or tightness in your chest.

  • Crushing or searing pain that radiates to your back, neck, jaw, shoulders, and one or both arms.

  • Pain that lasts more than a few minutes and gets worse with activity, then goes away, then comes back, or it just varies in intensity.

These chest pain symptoms are less likely to be heart-related:

  • A sour taste.

  • Persistent pain.

  • Trouble swallowing.

  • Tenderness when you push on your chest.

  • Pain that intensifies when you breathe deeply or cough.

  • Pain that gets better or worse when you change your body position.

  • Heartburn—a painful, burning sensation behind your breastbone.

You should see a doctor to get a definitive diagnosis. If you have new or unexplained chest pain, go to the PHS emergency department.

What causes chest pain?

Examples of heart-related causes of chest pain include:

  • Heart attack: A heart attack happens when blood flow to your heart muscle is blocked, often from a blood clot.

  • Angina: Angina is caused by poor blood flow to the heart. This is often caused by the buildup of plaque inside the arteries.

  • Aortic dissection: When the inner layers of the aorta separate, blood goes between the layers. The aorta becomes vulnerable to rupture. This is a life-threatening condition. Treatment can be monitoring the aorta or emergency surgery.

  • Pericarditis: This inflammation of the sac around your heart causes a sharp pain, especially when you breathe in or lie down.

What types of tests are used to diagnose chest pain?

Your doctor will ask you questions to help diagnose your chest pain. Be prepared to discuss your symptoms and to tell them about any medications you take, treatments you've had or medical conditions you have.

Your doctor may order tests to find the cause of your chest pain. These may include:

  • Blood tests: These tests measure enzyme levels.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This scan is used to look for damage to your heart or aorta.

  • Angiogram: This test is used to look for blockages in specific arteries.

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG): This test records your heart’s electrical activity.

  • Stress tests: These tests are used to measure your heart function after exertion.

  • Chest X-ray: This test is used to examine your heart, lungs, and blood vessels.

  • Echocardiogram: This test uses sound waves to record moving images of the heart.

What types of treatments and procedures are used to treat chest pain?

Your doctor might treat your chest pain with medication, noninvasive procedures, surgery or a combination of these methods.

Possible treatments include:

  • Medications: These may include nitroglycerin and other medications that open partially closed arteries, clot-busting drugs, or blood thinners.

  • Cardiac catheterization: This may involve using balloons or stents to open blocked arteries.

  • Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG): CABG, also known as bypass surgery, is the surgical repair of the arteries where a healthy blood vessel from another part of your body is connected below and above a blocked artery in your heart.

What can I do to support my health when I have chest pain?

Chest pain can be a sign of a serious condition like a heart attack. If you have chest pain that comes and goes, see your doctor. They should diagnose your condition in case it's serious.

Why choose Presbyterian for chest pain?

Presbyterian’s Heart and Vascular team has many different options to help you manage your heart condition. The team performs various diagnostic tests and procedures to help form an accurate diagnosis and create individualized treatment plans for your heart health needs. Depending on the type of heart condition you have and its underlying cause, the team can recommend a wide variety of treatment options, including lifestyle modifications, medications, and procedures. Our cardiologists and cardiovascular surgeons work closely together for cases in which surgery is the best treatment option. We also offer a customized cardiac rehabilitation program at our Healthplex, where clinically appropriate, which can improve your endurance and exercise tolerance, as well as improve heart-related symptoms. Your cardiologist will work with the rehabilitation team to create a plan that will be tailored to your individual health needs.